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Havel leaves Czech power vacuum

Havel has been widely praised for his foreign policy

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Protester and president. (February 2)
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PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who led the protests that toppled Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, is stepping down after 13 years as president.

There is no successor at present, and for the time being two other officials will assume power until a new leader can be chosen.

The 66-year-old spent his final day in office meeting political leaders and paying tribute to his country at memorial sites around the capital Prague.

Speaking to journalists, Havel said he had hoped a replacement would have been found by now, but noted there would be no constitutional crisis as a result of his post remaining vacant for a few weeks.

"It's not a catastrophe, but I do hope that a new president will be voted in in the near future," he said.

Havel's last duty will be a speech to the nation, expected to be broadcast at 1900 GMT.

Havel was leader of the "velvet revolution" that gave Czechs and Slovaks their freedom.

The Communists jailed Havel for nine months in 1989 for one of his protests.

He became president of Czechoslovakia, then the Czech Republic, when Czechoslovakia broke into Czech and Slovakian republics in 1993.

Now, under the constitution, he cannot serve again and is leaving office.

Legislative efforts to name a replacement have been unsuccessful.

"I feel with leaving office I will enter a new realm of great freedom than I have had ... and I will speak more freely," Havel told CNN's Walter Rodgers.

Among his other accomplishments were the reopening of historic Prague Castle, the office of the president, which the Communist regime had largely closed to the public.

Jiri Pehe, a former adviser, told Reuters: "While Havel was accepted abroad for his view, philosophy and his brave past, at home -- whether he liked it or not -- he got his hands dirty.

"Havel is cosmopolitan, while most Czechs are quite provincial. He speaks out on global issues, while most are interested in their backyards. And with his courageous fight against communism, he is an unpleasant mirror for most people here."

Observers say Havel constantly criticised most governments he appointed, even when they were popular. His own approval ratings sank as the economy slumped into recession.

Recent opinion polls gave Havel high marks for the Czech Republic's foreign policy, which has secured NATO membership and an invitation to join the EU next year. But he got very low ratings for his domestic politics.

Born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor, Havel was denied a good education after the communists seized power in 1948 and stripped the family of its wealth.

His dissident plays were banned for two decades, and Havel was thrown into prison several times after launching Charter 77, a manifesto demanding that the communist government adhere to international standards for human rights.

Ex-prime minister Vaclav Klaus said: "Havel is still a symbol. A symbol identifying citizens with the post-communist era, and coming from me that's more than just a catchphrase."

Havel also won huge respect for his courageous battle with illness. Long a chain-smoker, Havel twice needed electric shock therapy to revive his heart, once after surgery to repair an intestine that ruptured during a holiday in Austria.

Those scares followed cancer surgery in 1996 to remove two small, malignant tumours and half his right lung. He also suffered from pneumonia and chronic bronchitis.

In all, he spent 230 days of his presidency in hospital, and another 450 on vacation and medical leave.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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